Covid crime sprees and Indian Twitter battles the coronavirus crisis

Welcome to the Infodemic and, if you just joined us, thank you for signing up! We are tracking how disinformation surrounding the coronavirus crisis is reshaping our world. Here are the narratives, both real and fake, that have grabbed our team’s attention this week and deserve yours.

We are all eager to move on with our lives but, with infections on the rise in Latin America and Asia, the world has had its worst-ever Covid-19 week. The latest data from Johns Hopkins University showed a 12% increase in infections from the previous seven days, casting doubt on hopes that the end of the pandemic is in sight — especially as scientists worry that Brazil could be hothousing more new variants.

The pandemic is also breeding new kinds of crimes. Since it began, the world has seen a twofold rise in health-care-related hacking, and the number of instances in Israel has quadrupled. Lotem Finkelstein, head of cyber-intelligence at the online security company CheckPoint told Haaretz: “The average Israeli health care institute experiences about 1,500 attacks per week, while the global average is 700.” Israel says that it has traced many of the attacks to Iran, but criminals all over are trying to exploit the new goldmine of medical data. Their goals vary. Some are attempting to steal coronavirus research and vaccine data, others are targeting the personal information of medical staff and patients.

Vladimir Putin might be coming under a lot of pressure from the Biden administration, but the Russian leader was riding on a coronavirus-related high when he delivered his annual address to the nation this week. There was no mention of opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who is behind bars and in failing health. Instead, Putin focused most of his speech on domestic wins, including the success of the nation’s vaccine program. Take up in Russia may still be slow, but Sputnik V is being distributed in over 40 countries. It has even helped the small European nation of San Marino to get close to herd immunity in a matter of weeks.

Like Putin, President Sadyr Japarov of Kyrgyzstan recently extended his constitutional powers. Throughout the pandemic, he has remained firmly on the side of science — until last week. Then, Japarov switched from calling on people to mask up and vaccinate to pushing a new fake cure made from poisonous aconite root on social media. Health Minister Alymkadyr Beishenaliyev backed him, sipping the solution during a press conference last Friday. When hospitals started reporting cases of aconite poisoning, Beishenaliyev said the individuals affected had probably got the dose wrong. 

India has descended into coronavirus chaos, with case numbers and deaths skyrocketing. On Friday, the country registered a record-breaking 332,730 cases. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has been criticized for his handling of the pandemic, said the current situation was “like a storm.” The nation’s health care system is experiencing critical shortages of all the essentials: beds, oxygen, medicine and plasma. Isobel Cockerell has been speaking to young Indians trying to help out. Read on below.

TWITTER TO THE RESCUE by Isobel Cockerell

Search “Covid Delhi ICU” on Twitter, and you will be met with a wall of constantly updating information and offers of assistance. Behind it are thousands of young Indians, desperate to help people affected by the country’s Covid-19 crisis. 

“Twitter was a platform just for news or shitposting for most of us teens,” an 18-year-old user, who goes by the name @ninniistired, told me via direct message. Now, she said, her online peers have been busy creating databases, connecting patients with urgently needed supplies and making bots to post verified coronavirus information. 

Since Monday, Akshaya Dixit, an 18-year-old political science student at the University of Delhi, has established a new, manic routine. As soon as she wakes up, she opens Twitter and “starts circulating resources.” She is also using Telegram to coordinate with 180 online friends. They have split themselves into working groups. Some spend their time calling hospitals and medical suppliers to check on equipment, medicines and beds, while others, including Dixit, are in charge of tweeting out the resulting information. 

Between her studies, Dixit spends her day reposting pleas for plasma and hospital beds, along with alerts about their availability verified by members of her team. 

“Most of us are teenagers,” she told me. “I’m really proud of that.” 

For Dixit, the work she and her friends are doing provides a vital counterpoint to the torrent of misinformation she has seen online throughout the pandemic. “When someone shares false news on WhatsApp I get really annoyed,” she said. It also appears to be working. When we spoke, Dixit had just received a text from a Twitter user she had recently helped. 

“Hi Akshaya,” it said. “We were able to arrange an oxygen cylinder for my grandfather with the lead you shared. You saved his life. God bless you everything :).“

WHAT WE ARE READING?

  • This fascinating story from Abu Dhabi about an art gallery owner who set up a side business trying to sell one million black market AstraZeneca shots to the Czech government, charging $22 per dose — the official price is about $2.50.
  • This report on China and Russia’s pandemic gains in Latin America: “Russia and China have spent decades trying to make economic and diplomatic inroads in Latin America – through Spanish-language media broadcasting, arms sales, and trade – with varying success. But observers say their prioritizing Latin America now could have a long-term payoff, from support in bodies like the United Nations to trade deals and stronger economic relations.”
  • Meanwhile,  this report argues that while China tried to copy Russian Covid tactics, Beijing lacked the seasoned finesse of the Russians and generally did a pretty hamfisted job
  • And, last but not least, this story about a Canadian woman who tried to dodge a strict new curfew by… taking a man for a walk on a leash. 

Masho Lomashvili, Erica Hellerstein, Mariia Pankova and Mariam Kiparoidze have all contributed to this week’s Infodemic. There is a lot more from our team on codastory.com 

Got questions? Suggestions? Story tips?  Hit reply any time. We love hearing from you. And please do consider joining our membership program!

See you next Friday.

Natalia Antelava 

The story you just read is a small piece of a complex and an ever-changing storyline we are following as part of our coverage. These overarching storylines — whether the disinformation campaigns that are feeding the war on truth or the new technologies strengthening the growing authoritarianism, are the crises that Coda covers relentlessly and with singular focus. But we can’t do it without your help. Support journalism that stays on the story. Coda Story is a 501(c)3 U.S non-profit. Your contribution to Coda Story is tax deductible.

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